Do you remember all the chatter a couple of months ago about the couple that decided to live like Victorians? The whole thing seemed silly to me (both the article and the backlash), but somewhere in the conversation someone mentioned Ruth Goodman, a historian who studies day-to-day life and sometimes immerses herself in the period with living history experiences of wearing the clothes and doing the work. Her book, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, sounded interesting—and it is!
In the book, Goodman walks readers through a day in the Victorian life, beginning with getting out of bed in a cold room where a bedside rug, no matter how small, is a necessity. And she moves through meals, the workday, leisure, and finally bedtime, noting at each stage how Victorians of different social classes, regions, and time periods within the era would have experienced those activities. It’s not an exhaustive history—Goodman notes up front that she follows her own interests—but she does avoid the idea that there was just one way of being Victorian.
The book is full of the types of facts that don’t get explained in books from the period (or even fiction set in the period). For instance, it never occurred to me that when valets brush men’s suits in movies that they’re actually practicing an form of dry cleaning. I assumed it was just lint brushing or smoothing out the fabric. But Goodman says that with the right brushes, she’s been able to clean fabric just as well as she might have if she’d sent them away to a dry cleaner. Regular Victorian laundry, on the other hand, sounds dreadful. Goodman goes into some detail about how complicated it was to do the family laundry and how much strength it took to carry the water and wet clothes.
Clothes are another important topic. Goodman discusses clothes for men and women, boys and girls. She writes a bit about her own experiences wearing Victorian garments and how they affected her posture and movement. She found some of the looser corsets reasonably comfortable and could understand why women would wear them. That’s one of the things I liked about this book. Goodman is respectful of Victorian choices without romanticizing the period or condemning them for their ignorance. For most the book, she simply describes how it was, sometimes including quotes from diaries of the period, and she shares some of her own experiences trying out bits and pieces of the Victorian life.
Goodman’s own experiences do not make up a huge portion of the book. This is not a stunt memoir about living like a Victorian for a year or anything like that. She refers to her experiences when they seem important in aiding readers’ understanding of what this aspect of Victorian life was like. This happens most often in the areas of clothing and chores. As someone previously unfamiliar with Goodman’s work, I would have appreciated a little more context about her experiences. I couldn’t get a sense of how often she did Victorian laundry or gardening or wore Victorian garments. It seemed like more than an afternoon, but was it a week or two? Did she try taking on all aspects of Victorian life or just try to understand one element at a time? Offering too much information of this type could have made the book about her and her experiences, however, and I’m glad she didn’t do that.
The book is well organized and readable, and although there are tons of facts and more information than I’ll ever remember, it’s not overwhelming. The structure keeps everything under control. This is a history of ordinary life, so there’s limited mention of famous personages and big events. They tend to come up when they touched ordinary life or when the notable people happened to offer good examples of the topic at hand. (For example, she opens the book with a description of what a morning in the home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle might have been like.) If this kind of history interests you, I certainly recommend this book. I learned a lot from it. Perhaps you will, too.